West Vir­gini­ans liv­ing abroad vote by phone

The Columbus Dispatch - - Front Page - By Brian Fung

More than 100 West Vir­gini­ans liv­ing abroad in nearly 20 coun­tries cast their bal­lots Tues­day for the midterm elec­tions in an un­prece­dented pi­lot project that in­volved vot­ing re­motely by mo­bile de­vice, ac­cord­ing to state of­fi­cials.

The statewide pi­lot, which cov­ered 24 of West Vir­ginia’s 55 coun­ties, used a mix of smart­phones, fa­cial recog­ni­tion and the same tech­nol­ogy that un­der­pins bit­coin — blockchain — in an ef­fort to cre­ate a large-scale, se­cure way for ser­vice mem­bers, Peace Corps vol­un­teers and other Amer­i­cans liv­ing over­seas to par­tic­i­pate in elec­tions.

West Vir­ginia is the first state to run a blockchain­based vot­ing project at such a scale, state of­fi­cials said. And if adopted more widely, the tech­nol­ogy could make it eas­ier to vote and po­ten­tially re­duce long lines at the polls. But many se­cu­rity ex­perts worry that the tech­nol­ogy might not be ready for broader use — and could even con­tain vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties that risk the in­tegrity of elec­tions.

By Elec­tion Day, vot­ers had sub­mit­ted bal­lots from Afghanistan, Iraq, Gu­atemala, Le­banon, South Africa and Venezuela, among oth­ers, said Michael Queen, deputy chief of staff to West Vir­ginia Sec­re­tary of State Mac Warner. Warner’s son, who is in the mil­i­tary and sta­tioned abroad, also par­tic­i­pated in the pi­lot, Queen said.

As many as 300,000 U.S. vot­ers lo­cated over­seas re­quested bal­lots in the 2016 elec­tions but failed to sub­mit them, said Queen, a fig­ure that sug­gests many Amer­i­cans face dif­fi­culty par­tic­i­pat­ing in elec­tions from abroad.

West Vir­ginia turned to Voatz, a blockchain-fo­cused in­vest­ment firm owned by the on­line re­tailer Over­stock. com.

The Voatz app has been used on a lim­ited ba­sis in other set­tings, such as stu­dent coun­cil races and West Vir­ginia’s May pri­mary. But Elec­tion Day rep­re­sented the com­pany’s big­gest test yet.

To cast a bal­lot, vot­ers reg­is­tered through the app by up­load­ing an im­age of their driver’s li­cense or other photo iden­ti­fi­ca­tion. Then the app in­structed them to sub­mit a short video of their own face. Fa­cial-recog­ni­tion tech­nol­ogy supplied by a voter’s iPhone or An­droid de­vice matched the video against the photo ID, and the per­sonal in­for­ma­tion on the ID was matched to West Vir­ginia’s voter-reg­is­tra­tion data­base.

Once the ver­i­fi­ca­tion was com­plete, vot­ers made their se­lec­tions and con­firmed their bal­lot.

Hi­lary Braseth, Voatz’s di­rec­tor of prod­uct de­sign, said that in ad­di­tion to the tech­no­log­i­cal ver­i­fi­ca­tion process, the com­pany also had hu­man work­ers man­u­ally re­view the sub­mit­ted in­for­ma­tion. The com­pany does not store the per­sonal data once a voter’s iden­tity has been con­firmed, she said.

Votes were stored on a pri­vate blockchain — es­sen­tially a data­base se­cured us­ing com­plex com­pu­ta­tional al­go­rithms — and un­locked by county clerks when the polls closed.

Those votes were printed onto pa­per bal­lots, which were then counted with all other bal­lots on Elec­tion Day.

Sev­eral in­de­pen­dent, out­side au­di­tors are ex­pected to spend the fol­low­ing months as­sess­ing the pi­lot project, with a re­port likely made pub­lic early next year.

Queen said West Vir­ginia has no plans to ex­tend mo­bile vot­ing be­yond its rel­a­tively small over­seas pop­u­la­tion.

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